Journal of the History of Biology 36: 618-619, 2003.
© 2003 Kluwer
Academic Publishers. Printed
Robert J. Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and
in the Age of Goethe (
2002), xx + 587 pp., illus., $35.00.
dilemma a reviewer faces when confronted with this magisterial tome, especially
when writing for the JHB, is how to treat the
material that comes at the end of the book. In part IV, the author deals with
the heritage of what has occupied him in the great bulk of the volume, romantic
natural science and philosophy in
of this journal will likely be drawn immediately to the epilogue, where, in a
final chapter, Richards deals with “
It is, of course, now unfashionable to judge a book as the “definitive” treatment of its subject. Recognizing that future historians may view science and philosophy in the age of Goethe differently from Richards, I nonetheless remain confident that The Romantic Conception of Life will be a book they will not only continue to consult and to learn from for a long time to come, but one to which they repeatedly will have to defer. It is the product of years of research by one of the few historians capable of dealing with the abstruse (p. 618) primary materials of German thought that quickly drive away the meekhearted. No one has delved into the works of the German intellectuals of these years as exhaustively as Richards has, and no one has made better sense of them either. To follow the story is not always easy, but it is enormously rewarding.
Richards is convinced that the only way
to judge the kind of thinking Friedrich Schlegel dubbed romantic is to become
immersed in it. This means that biographical detail is not merely interesting
and helpful, it is essential. To appreciate the way in which aesthetic
experience reconfigures cognition itself for these passionate people one must
appreciate the role, for example, of the erotic in their lives. The
emotion-filled world of lived romantic experience
While it is difficult to find one, I
can register one complaint. Richards missed an opportunity to include a
reference to the unique mechanical account of organism J. F. Fries used to
oppose Schelling, who had originally inspired him. It would have rounded out
his otherwise exhaustive treatment of Schelling, but in light of the impressive
mastery of the secondary literature surrounding his subject, my complaint
borders on nitpicking. There are, of course, questions some will want to ask
about his position on
In the end, however, this is a grand work. Richards states his goal for the book to be: “To expose the roots of nineteenth-century biological thought, so that this thought might be reconsidered” (p. 511). Like Goethe, whom he admires so deeply, Richards believes he must, as he says, crack through thought that has been encrusted by traditional presumption and surface interpretation so that we might reconceive the meaning of past events to discover in them a new character, a new being. That he has certainly done, and we will be long in his debt.